Playground for the rich: Tomson Golf Club in Shanghai. Photo: Alessandro Rizzi/Luz/Eyevine
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The Chinese golf courses that don’t officially exist

The Forbidden Game uses golf – a game that most in the country probably still know nothing about – to gain a rare insight into ordinary Chinese lives. 

The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream
Dan Washburn
Oneworld, 316pp, £12.99

 

Zhou Xunshu grows up in a very poor village in China, tending the family oxen. Without knowing anything about the sport, he becomes a security guard at a posh golf course. He falls for the game. Training secretly, he turns himself into a golf pro and coach. He buys a flat in Chongqing, a city that grows by the day. Then he returns to the village to persuade his aged peasant parents to come and live with him.

The parents aren’t keen to move. Over food, tobacco and corn wine, they argue the matter into the night. “The conversation droned on,” writes the American journalist Dan Washburn in one of the best passages of his book on golf in China. These were “different versions of the same arguments that had been made hundreds of times before” – or more accurately, taking a pan-China view, millions of times.

At 2am, the father finally agrees to move. The next day, writes Washburn, the parents “stuffed their most important belongings into plastic rice sacks and cardboard fruit boxes. They didn’t pack photos or family heirlooms – they had none of these. They packed sugar, preserved pork, heads of garlic . . .” (Washburn is a little too fond of detail.) The next thing they know, they are sitting on Zhou’s sofa in Chongqing, watching TV.

The Forbidden Game uses golf – a game that most in the country probably still know nothing about – to gain a rare insight into ordinary Chinese lives. Washburn, the managing editor of the Asia Society in the US, was a reporter in China when he began covering golf tournaments. A Stakhanovite worker, he spent years trekking to the least glamorous corners of the country and has ended up with interlinked portraits of three men touched by the rise of golf in China.

One is Zhou, the journeyman pro. The second is Martin Moore, an American builder of golf courses who ended up in China because that’s where courses were getting built. And the third is Wang Libo, “a lychee farmer on China’s tropical Hainan Island”, whose life changed after a developer chose Wang’s village as the site of the world’s largest golf complex.

Golf proves an excellent lens through which to view contemporary China. That’s partly because, in a very Chinese way, the boom in golf course construction was illegal and officially never happened. The courses eat up farmland and are stages for ostentatious displays of wealth, often by government officials. The sport conveys wealth and ease in China in a way that it doesn’t any more in the west. That is why many new Chinese rich are keen to live on golf resorts.

Indeed, most golf courses in the country are built chiefly in order to sell luxury homes. Washburn quotes a billboard for golf villas with the slogan “Leading the dance of business philosophy, one villa can conquer the world”. (Professionally, golf remains a minor sport but some young Chinese golfers, often from rich backgrounds, are attracting international notice – especially Guan Tianlang, who at last year’s US Masters, aged 14, became the youngest player to make the cut in a major championship.)

The rich man’s game is embarrassing to the Communist Party, especially when played by officials with “golf tans”, and so Beijing issues periodic edicts against the building of new courses. These edicts rarely affect what happens on the ground. Washburn quotes a typically excellent Chinese proverb: “The mountain is high and the emperor is far away.” Local officials like selling land for golf courses because they personally pocket much of the proceeds. Washburn explains that, in a residue of communism, “The government owns all land in China; villagers just lease it.” Those who lose their land typically get fobbed off with small sums.

Golf is just one of the forces driving them off their land. Many peasants are understandably upset. “Of the 187,000 mass demonstrations reported in China in 2010,” Washburn writes, “65 per cent were related to disputes over land.” One American golf-course worker describes a typical protest: “They always come out with their machetes. There’ll be 30 little women and they’ll all start screaming Hainanese and shaking their machetes and yelling at you.” Generally, the bulldozers win.

The conflicts are particularly acute in Hainan, which Beijing hopes to convert into a Hawaiian-style tourist paradise with lots of golf. A course developer offers villagers payouts for their ancient houses. Wang Libo takes the money. He opens a little shop to feed the labourers who have come to staff the new complex. The shop thrives. Soon, he opens a restaurant. Like the golfer Zhou, Wang gains a shaky foothold in China’s middle classes – a slice of the “Chinese dream”.

In probably no other country have ordinary people’s lives changed so much in the past 30 years. Here, the difference between a person’s childhood and adulthood is often almost unfathomable. It is hard to feel nostalgia for the country the Chinese have left behind. Zhou’s father-in-law recalls how, as a child in Mao’s China, he was sometimes “so constipated from not eating enough fibre that his father had to use a finger to dig the faeces out of him”. No wonder that “Ni chi fan le ma?” – which translates as “Have you eaten?” – remains a common greeting in China.

But inevitably, with all the changes, much has been lost. The environment is being destroyed. For the Hainan golf complex, the developers cut down a mountain and turned it into a lake. In Wang’s village, those who accepted compensation for their homes and those who didn’t stop talking to each other. In almost too perfect a closing set piece, Wang sits under the phoenix tree where villagers used to gather every evening and muses: “I had thought that the volleyball matches would continue no matter what development came here. I never thought things like chess or even just nighttime chatting between villagers would disappear so quickly. And I think in the near future all of the old stone houses will be replaced.” Zhou’s parents are even less fond of progress: after just a fortnight in Chongqing, they flee back to their village.

This book is probably worth the years Washburn put into it and the nights he spent sharing cheap hotel rooms with Zhou on China’s golf tour. You just wish he were a more natural stylist and storyteller. He knows that a book needs characters so he has tracked them like a stalker and he diligently slathers on the colour. No detail is omitted: “It was brutally hot – reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), with 82 per cent humidity – and Zhou slogged his way through the front nine. He was two over at the turn . . .” American writers tend to over-research; the British do the opposite.

Washburn’s stories meander. But they lead, eventually, to an illuminating portrait of modern China.

Simon Kuper’s books include “Soccernomics” (HarperSport, £8.99), co-written with Stefan Szymanski

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.